Note: The following essay explores a theme that can be a third rail: Christmas in America. My intent is not to impugn the holiday. I hope friends, family and readers who celebrated this past Christmas had a wonderful, meaningful holiday. I understand and respect its importance. I have a perspective, as an outsider, that some may not have considered. I offer my thoughts in that context. I welcome constructive criticism, other insights and reactions. Please feel free to comment.
I was watching a holiday version of House Hunters recently. The idea was that a family wanted to find their dream home in time to be settled in it for Christmas and have time to decorate for the season. The family was shown homes by a real estate agent who looked like Santa Claus (yes, really). Okay, I figured, let’s see what this is. I love these types of shows – whether it is Lakefront Bargain Hunt, or House Hunters International, I find it entertaining and mildly informational seeing a range of housing options across the globe. This variation seemed interesting enough.
Though I do not celebrate Christmas, I enjoy the light displays very much. As we begin the dark descent into winter, the lights are a bright, cheerful spot. Growing up in Canarsie (Brooklyn) we would take a ride around the neighborhood to see which houses had the best lights. The funeral home, Guarino’s, did a particularly spectacular job. I could enjoy the efforts of my neighbors but did not feel deprived that we as Jews didn’t decorate our home.
I settled in to watch and early on felt surprisingly uncomfortable. My hesitation with this episode of House Hunters: Home for the Holidays was that the family featured was Indian (from India originally) and they were Hindus. First, to be clear, I have no issue with the show featuring non-white, non-Christian families! One of the things I appreciate about the House Hunters franchise is that they present a fairly diverse group of individuals – families, couples or singletons of every color and orientation. It may not be perfectly representative, but there is a cross section of humanity on the show. I have been watching it since the Bush (Dubya) administration and they incorporated diversity early on.
The thing that troubled me – and I could have missed something that would have explained it – was the premise that this family needed to have a fabulous Christmas display, though it didn’t seem like they celebrated the holiday. The show began with an explanation of the Hindu holiday of Diwali – a festival of lights. They were going to incorporate the colors of Diwali into their Christmas decorations. Mind you, at least as best as I can tell, Diwali does not fall at the same time of the year as Christmas so I’m not sure there is a natural fit, but maybe there is. The family explained to the Santa-look-a-like realtor about their holiday, and he was delighted to learn about it. That’s great, if only they left it there. Maybe the house hunt could have centered on how well it met their needs in celebrating Diwali, or other Hindu festivals.
But, then they went on this journey to find the perfect home for their new Christmas display. It didn’t sit right, though I readily acknowledge every family’s right to celebrate whatever holidays they want in whatever way they want (assuming they aren’t hurting others in the process).
I had a friend in graduate school whose family (her parents) immigrated from China to escape Communism. Her parents were not raised with religion. When they got to this country they converted to, I think that is the right word, or maybe they simply became Catholic. They raised their children in the church accordingly. They did this of their own free will. I didn’t ask why her parents chose Catholicism, or why they chose religion at all. The beauty of our country is that they could make that choice. They celebrated Christmas. They did not shed their Chinese customs either – in food and family traditions they maintained their identity. I’m sure there were difficulties adapting to American life, but they seemed to be forging a path that integrated different elements into a whole that worked for them. So, the idea of coming to America and embracing Christianity is not what I am questioning.
I was not convinced this was the case for the family featured on House Hunters: Home for the Holidays. If this family got joy from adding Christmas to their family traditions, good for them. Something about the way it was presented didn’t come across that way. It felt like a competition to outdo others with their Christmas lights. It seemed to have nothing to do with the actual meaning of the holiday.
I would love to hear from readers who are of other faiths, or those without any faith tradition, who have navigated this. Did your family adopt Christmas? If so, how does it feel for you? I know many people who intermarried (Jews and Christians are common pairings in my family) – which is also a journey that requires compromise and negotiation. But, I am not really focused on that here. This t.v. show was not highlighting a ‘mixed’ family. There may be parallels but it is a little different.
I find Christmas in America to be very confusing – and I was born here (third generation as my grandmothers were born here) and have never lived anywhere else. On the one hand, people seem to want Christmas to be everywhere – on t.v., on the radio, in the mall, even in public schools. They want it to be an American holiday. But then they complain that Christ has been taken out of Christmas. If Christ is at the heart of it, then it should be for believers. Not everyone is a believer, though. Perhaps many in this country are happy to celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday. But then why the attachment to “Merry Christmas?” If it is secular, why is it so important that everyone observe it? You can’t have it both ways.
I can imagine that for some the holiday is about family traditions which is a powerful attachment. Putting up a tree, decorating the home, exchanging gifts, gathering with those you love are all beautiful traditions. I respect that, but it still does not explain why it should be expected of others who don’t share the faith or the family history.
I wondered if the family on this show felt pressured to adopt Christmas as a holiday. Muslims, Hindus, Jews, atheists and other non-Christian people should not have to participate in Christmas. If they choose to, for whatever reasons (though hopefully not to keep up with the Joneses), that’s their right. And, they don’t owe me an explanation for their participation. I just hope it comes from a healthy, expansive place and not from feeling looked down upon, or judged as less than by other Americans. And, Americans should not start from the assumption that everyone celebrates Christmas.